by Dan Burke
From the Editor: This is a story Dan Burke wrote a long time ago. Why it has been so long in getting to us I cannot say, but I doubt it was the US Post Office or a slow internet connection that caused the delay. No doubt it was Dan going about living his life, thinking only after hearing a conversation that this might just serve to show blind people what blind people can do in the same way that these travelers were showing sighted residents of Montana. Here is Dan’s story:
Five of us start out in the 7 a.m. darkness of a late October Montana morning: four men and one woman, four white canes, and one guide dog. We have a goal and directions from the motel clerk where we’re staying to attend an affiliate board meeting: Walk straight out from the door, and you’ll hit the driveway out to the road. It’s a different driveway than the one you took to dinner last night. Bear to the right, and you’ll find the edge of the drive; there’s a line of boulders bordering it. Cross the two-lane and turn right. Pretty quick you’ll come to another driveway going off to the left. Turn in there. No, that first building won’t be it; that’s the bank. Keep going past there, and after a while the oil ends, so keep going on the gravel. When you get down there, you’ll know it; there’ll be a bunch of pickups parked in front.
We start, make the driveway, and find the right edge. I look for the border of boulders, mostly out of curiosity. Now we’re across the road, staying close together, and turned right. There is no traffic, not even the sound of a vehicle on I-15 a quarter mile east. Walking in the shoulder gravel—shore-lining—the driveway is there after maybe thirty feet. A voice calls out from the motel parking lot.
“That’s it, turn left there.”
Kind of figured, but the reinforcement is not resented. Another four steps and the voice calls out again: “Now turn right!”
This jog was not part of the original set of directions, a detail easily overlooked, especially by someone unused to giving directions to anyone but sighted people—no matter that we asked for clarification and repetition. In fact, a sighted person would be told simply, “You can see it just down there.” There’s nothing out here to block the view, so maybe you would have seen it already, and the only conversation necessary would center on whether it was a good place for breakfast—in this instance a matter not in doubt. The watchful eye of the motel clerk may be little more than recognition of doubt about her verbal instructions. In any case, we turn right.
We continue down this drive, taking up the whole thing, some following the crown, some shore-lining the edge of the pavement, some just following the flow. There is light chatter in the rear of the procession, comments on the chill of the light breeze that greets our faces. Soon there is a flapping and slapping of nylon rope and metal coming up on our left.
“Flag,” Jim Marks observes just behind me. “That’ll be the bank.”
Jim and I have traveled together often and over all kinds of terrain, and this observation is one of the things that always makes exploring with him such a pleasure. On an unclaimed afternoon in Washington, DC a few years ago, we walked from the vicinity of the White House back to the Mall and up to the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and then off to find the relatively-new FDR Memorial—the existence of which very few seemed to be able to fix in their minds well enough to give us much in the way of directions. We kept on, kept asking until a British tourist along the Potomac asked:
“President Roosevelt,” I said.
“Churchill’s buddy,” clarified Jim.
The tourist seemed to scratch his head, considering as he slowly rotated it before he finally noticed the sign beside us. He happily announced that we were there.
After examining the gigantic Braille on the wall and the bronze sculpture of the fedoraed, pince-nezed President in his wheelchair, we set off back to our room at the Capitol Holiday Inn, trying to make it before dark. All day long we traded observations, identified landmarks, and taught each other a thing or two about traveling in a strange city.
But we are in Jim’s home territory now. His family homesteaded about thirty miles east of here five generations ago, and Markses are spread out all over this area. We already made a bit of a splash: Our outing to the Montana City Grill last night netted two sightings by members of Jim’s family living in this unincorporated township, which has become something of a bedroom community for the state capitol.
Since Montana City is unincorporated, there are no sidewalks, no streets in the usual sense of a city street, few right angle-turns, stop signs or streetlights—all things city travelers rely on as landmarks. On the other hand, this is pretty tame stuff. Tomorrow at this time Jim will be out in the hills and gulches where his family has lived for more than a century, quietly stalking elk with family members and neighbors on opening day of hunting season.
Now another driveway turns off to the left. We hear a low buzzing sound, steady, on the far side of the drive, and I detect a rectangle of light as we come up on it, a bank sign, likely. We press on and before long find the end of the oil, and then my cane sweeps across the gravel. The track’s not difficult to follow, and I start looking for signs of parked vehicles. A car or two passes on the road above and to our right, and I listen to see if any turn in ahead of us, revealing our destination. None do, but I already suspect this is the only way in anyway. Still, no traffic comes down our track to give additional clues.
We are staying together, though spread out across the gravel drive, heading slightly downhill. Then the road starts to level out a little, and then from ahead a new cheerful voice: “Good morning!”
“Get a call?” I ask in response, smiling in the dark.
“Sharon called and said you were coming,” confirming only that this is Montana small-town life. Then we are threading our way through parked vehicles to the sidewalk running along the front of the building.
“I’m not sure how to give you directions,” our guide confesses, trying to worry us between parked 4-wheel drives and around posts.
“Just keep talking,” we assure her.” We’ll be right behind you.”
Inside, only three or four of the twenty tables are occupied. We sit at a table covered with a vinyl tablecloth loaded with creamer and condiments and place settings.
“Anybody want coffee?” I am already turning my mug over, examining the print with my fingers.
“What does the cup say?” I ask the hostess as she comes around to pour.
“Montana City Hardware Café,” comes the half-expected answer.
“I’m putting water on the table,” the waitress announces. “Yours is next to your coffee,” she says, and I hear the soft thunk as it comes to rest on the cloth.
The south end of the building is the café. The north end is the hardware store, where you can buy galvanized nails, fence supplies, batteries, and alfalfa pellets for your horse on your way out after breakfast. In fact, my one previous visit here with friends who live in the area ended in just such a transaction. Now, I’ve got t-shirts from various trips—Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago—but nowhere does Hard Rock Café food come close to the food served here. This is a Montana original.
Our waitress starts through the specials, then reads the descriptions of the other items. But I want more than just what’s in each dish.
“What are the names of these?” I ask, and she begins to read the names along with the descriptions.
Ted Robbins orders the Mechanic’s Skillet. Appropriate enough: Ted has been blind for a quarter of a century, and though he retired from his northern plains farm a few years ago, he still tears into his vehicles to do necessary maintenance. Lately he replaced the struts on his van. We order one special, a couple of Plumber’s Skillets with sausage and eggs and onions and green peppers on a bed of hash browns, and one Buzzsaw featuring homemade biscuits and sausage gravy.
The place is filling up. As Federationists, we know that wherever we go in our home state, we are seen, and we are teaching a different lesson about what it means to be blind. Maybe this wide, friendly spot in the road will buzz about us after we’re gone. Maybe not: Maybe some will imagine us as especially intrepid—surely blind people don’t wander into the Hardware Café often. But somewhere in the back of their minds we hope they will recognize an important fact: That we’re pretty much like them; we’re after a good meal in a warm place where the customers and staff josh amiably and folks can enjoy the company of good friends. Certainly we are treated respectfully, not hovered over, yet get plenty of good information from the waitress; we’re just another table of hungry Saturday morning breakfast customers. As is often the case, the most important lesson we’re called upon to give today as blind people is simply showing up.
By the time my Plumber’s Skillet lands in front of me, I’m good and hungry. The board met till ten last night, and we have about six hours ahead of us today. I dig in a little too enthusiastically at first, but soon slow down to enjoy the food and one of Ted’s salt-of-the-earth stories.
When my check comes, I pick it up, extend my cane, and move around the table and then off of the carpet of the room onto the tiled area by the entrance to where I suspect the cash register counter will be. It turns out to be a table with two middle-aged women, who set me straight.
“Sometimes,” I explain, “you gotta get lost before you know where you are.”
After everyone pays, we make for the door. The hostess who met us out front on our way in is quickly there.
“Do you need any help getting back?” she asks.
“We won’t have a problem.”
We thank her and make our farewells. Outside, traffic is beginning to move on the road and on the Interstate. The dull first light of morning is in the sky, revealing the shapes of the Elkhorn Mountains around us. We start off up the gravel drive, fortified, satisfied we have done a small part of the day’s work of changing what it means to be blind.